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My daughter can’t tell me what she wants for Christmas. Here’s how I figure it out.

If you’re a caregiver for someone living with autism — particularly a child — one of the biggest stressors around the holidays can be figuring out what kind of gift to get them.

Autism sometimes includes unconventional or sporadic communication, so developing a gift list is typically more labor-intensive than saying, “Hey, make a list of what you’d like!”

My daughter, Lily, lives with autism. And this year (as last), she wants nothing. Whether the holiday season (in our case, Christmas) is more for her or for me is a no-brainer: It’s for me.

I’ve given up all pretense that my desire for her to open presents is bringing her joy. I’m satisfied with just making the holidays as stress-free for her as possible, still enjoying the traditions I grew up with and am unwilling to leave behind, adapting those traditions to fit her neurology, and also meeting the expectations of my older, neurotypical daughter, Emma.

It’s challenging at any time to find out what Lily wants since she doesn’t necessarily respond to questions like “What do you want?” regardless of the topic. This makes meeting her needs and wants challenging under any circumstances, but significantly more stressful when asking not just for one or two things, but dozens (Lily also has a birthday in December).

This challenge isn’t uncommon on the autism spectrum, though it — like most things in the spectral world — isn’t a universally shared trait.

So how do you know what to buy for that special someone you love when communication is less straightforward than “Make a list”? Here are 10 suggestions I hope help you.

OK, OK, I know I just premised this entire article on what to buy when you can’t get easy answers, but I think it’s still important to ask.

I ask Lily every year, as many times as I can remember, in a lot of different ways. Lily doesn’t often respond to my questions, but sometimes it’s because she doesn’t like the way they’re phrased.

Changing the way I ask will sometimes allow her to better understand. Some different ways I ask are:

  • “What do you want?”
  • “What do you like to play with?”
  • “Does [insert toy] look fun?”
  • “What is your favorite toy?”

And this one succeeds for me sometimes in a way I don’t understand but that makes me happy: “I wonder what Lily would like for Christmas.”

Sometimes it’s obvious, sometimes it’s not. But if you can find out straight from them, that’s obviously the quickest and easiest solution.

Anyone who’s cared for someone who communicates in a nontraditional fashion has heard this phrase, and it applies to the holiday season as well.

Lily communicates her love for certain toys or activities by virtue of sheer repetition. So, what does your loved one enjoy doing?

Lily loves to play with her iPad, turn the pages of books, listen to music, and play with her princess castle. Again, it may be obvious, but I look for ways to supplement those things I know she loves already.

Streaming music may have made buying CDs all but obsolete, but perhaps a new Bluetooth speaker or headphones is needed. Or maybe new princesses for her castle, or similar playsets, like a farm or amusement park set, that allow her to play in a way similar to something she already enjoys.

Every year, I ask Lily’s teachers and therapists what toys and activities she loves while she’s there. I don’t always get those types of details in their daily reports, so finding out she loves a specific scooter in gym class, an adapted bike, or a specific song is often news to me.

Lily’s routines vary based on venue, so what interests her at school isn’t typically mentioned at home, because she knows it’s not available. Making something she enjoys at school available to her in a new setting is often a good gift idea for her.

As a parent, it can be tedious to listen to one thing over and over again, but if the goal is holiday happiness, then I’m looking for any way to hit that goal. Even if it means eventually sacrificing my sanity due to Wiggles overload.

Some children with autism find pleasure in a very specific, focused way. I have friends whose children will adore anything that is Thomas the Tank Engine, Legos, princesses, Wiggles, and so on. Lily’s love is the Wiggles.

I look for ways to incorporate that love into different outlets. Wiggles dolls, books, coloring books, CDs, DVDs, clothing — all these gifts are more likely to be successful because of her love for the Wiggles’ movies.

As a parent, it can be tedious to listen to one thing over and over again, but if the goal is holiday happiness, then I’m looking for any way to hit that goal. Even if it means eventually sacrificing my sanity due to Wiggles overload.

There are some niche items for which there’s no replacement. When it wears out, breaks, dies, or gets lost, it can be extremely triggering for your loved one.

Lily has a friend who loves a segmented, wooden toy snake. He uses it to self-soothe and stim. His mother has several duplicate copies of that snake, so if he loses it, he has another.

I have another friend whose son has a very specific favorite Steelers hat. She bought him another identical one for his birthday. Redundant gifts might not seem like “fun,” but they’re definitely helpful and useful.

Those with autism can be extremely sensitive to touch. Some off-the-rack clothes seem scratchy, and the seams or tags can rub like sandpaper.

When you find clothes that work, you stick with them. But you can’t always find that clothing when you need it, so lots of pairs of identical pants can be more welcome than something “new” that may or may not feel good when it’s worn. Stick with what works… and buy spares.

Many autism schools (or learning support classrooms) have sensory rooms. While creating a full sensory room in your home may seem a bit cost-prohibitive, buying (or building) a component or two is not.

Whether it’s a bubble tower, waterbed, soft-colored lights, or a stereo to play mellow music, you can get some great ideas online on how to create a relaxing, sensory-friendly, and satisfying safe space for your loved one.

Searching for sensory room ideas online will give you a lot of potential gifts or DIY projects to tackle.

When Lily was an infant, she loved diapers. Not so much wearing them, but playing with them. She’d dig into a box of diapers and pull them out, examine them, twist her hand back and forth and watch them, smell them (they have a pleasant scent), and then move on to the next one. For hours.

While it wasn’t a typical present, we got Lily boxes of diapers. We let her rummage through them, pulling them out of the neatly stacked bags, scattering them everywhere, and then putting them back away again. We used the diapers more traditionally later, of course, but what she really wanted to do was play with them, so that was our gift to her. And she loved it.

Don’t be afraid to give something unconventional just because it doesn’t seem to be what you’d consider a traditional toy or gift. What seems unconventional to you may bring immense satisfaction to your child.

As kids transition through adolescence and approach adulthood, the almost universal desire to be able to choose for themselves seems stronger and stronger. While many people struggle with the idea of giving money or gift cards because they feel it’s impersonal, it’s often the “favorite” gift.

It’s not just money. It’s… freedom. I struggle giving gift cards to my older teen, Emma, but then I remember the goal with any gift is her happiness.

Lily loves McDonald’s. During some past stretches, Lily’s eating was a major hurdle, and one of the few things we could feed her that she’d tolerate was McDonald’s chicken nuggets. One week during a vacation where all the food from the local grocery store was different and scary and unacceptable, we took her to eat at McDonald’s 10 times.

I frequently give and receive McDonald’s gift cards for Lily, and it’s always a great gift. Almost every major retailer and restaurant has gift cards, so they’re easy to find, too.

Fidget toys, therapy swings, adaptive utensils, and weighted blankets are, perhaps not surprisingly, expensive. They make great gifts that, if not exactly traditional holiday gifts, are helpful and welcome.

Sometimes the benefits of these tools and toys are observed only in a school or therapy setting, but can be used at home as well.

The stress of finding the “right” gift is perhaps less stressful if we allow ourselves to push past the expectations that confuse what’s right for our loved ones living with autism with what’s right for us, or what we ourselves would have wanted in their place.

A repeated theme in the autism world, we can’t expect traditional or typical. We should adapt, and shoot instead for exceptional.

Jim Walter is the author of Just a Lil Blog, where he chronicles his adventures as a single dad of two daughters, one of whom has autism. You can follow him on Twitter.